Michigan State enters this game with a 10-3 overall record, but one of those three defeats came in its most recent outing, a 42-39 setback to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Conference Championship Game. The Spartans are bowl- eligible for a school-record fifth consecutive season, and Mark Dantonio is obviously the first coach in program history to qualify for postseason play in each of his first five years at the helm. MSU is making its 22nd bowl appearance overall, including its first-ever trip to the Outback Bowl, and the club is 7-14 all-time in the postseason.
"When you look at Georgia, from my perspective, first of all you look at the head football coach (Mark Richt)," said Dantonio. "I think he's brought a great deal of stability to the program there. He's developed a culture there. He's been tremendously successful. He'll provide us with a great challenge."
Speaking of Richt, he was recently in the news for unknowingly violating NCAA rules by paying some members of his football staff out of his own pocket. The secondary NCAA violations will have no impact on this bowl game, and have actually shined a positive light on Richt for his loyalty and generosity. The coach has led his Bulldogs to a 10-3 record this season, an accomplishment that is especially impressive when considering the fact that the first two games resulted in defeat. Last time out, Georgia dropped a 42-10 decision to undefeated LSU in the SEC Championship Game, as the 'Dawgs earned their berth in that affair by winning the league's East Division. Georgia is participating in its 47th bowl game (26-17-3), and the club is 3-0 all-time in the Outback Bowl.
"I'm really excited for our team and especially our seniors with the opportunity to play in the Outback Bowl, which is one of the premier January bowl games," said Richt. "We were fortunate to play in this game back in 2005 and had a terrific experience. This will be the first time the members of our team have the opportunity to play in Tampa and playing a top quality opponent like Michigan State will be a challenge we'll look forward to."
Michigan State is a formidable offensive team, as it generates 30.8 ppg and 390.4 total ypg, and there are standout performers at all the skill positions. QB Kirk Cousins has completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,016 yards and 24 TDs against only seven interceptions, while his favorite target, wideout B.J. Cunningham, has made 72 catches for 1,240 yards and 12 TDs. As for the running game, Le'Veon Bell has racked up 900 yards and 11 TDs while averaging 5.0 ypc.
"I think this season he's matured greatly and has been able to stay the course," says Dantonio of Bell. "If anything, he's gotten stronger. Weighs about 237 pounds, can do probably anything out there he wants to in terms of running the football, blocking, catching the football. So obviously he's a great player for us."
Opponents are only scoring 17.5 ppg against Michigan State, which is yielding a mere 272.7 total ypg. The Spartans are tough against the run, holding foes to 104.3 ypg at a clip of just 2.9 yards per carry. The pass defense has been inconsistent at times, but the fact that opposing QBs are only passing for 168.4 ypg and that the Spartans have come up with 16 INTs has to be viewed as a positive. Max Bullough leads MSU with 86 total tackles, while Denicos Allen has logged 17 TFL, including 10 sacks. Both Renton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis have four interceptions.
Challenging that Michigan State defense will be a Georgia club that puts up 32.2 ppg and 413.8 total ypg. The Bulldogs have scored 50 offensive touchdowns this season, and 35 have come via the pass. Just a sophomore, Aaron Murray has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,861 yards with 33 TDs against 12 INTs. Rather than rely on one receiver, Murray does a tremendous job of spreading the ball around. Orson Charles is certainly a talented target, as he is considered one of the top tight ends in all of college football. Georgia's ground attack depends heavily on the health of freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell, who figures to play in this game despite an ankle injury. Crowell has rushed for 847 yards and five TDs, utilizing a tremendous blend of power and speed. Still, Richt doesn't consider Crowell the workhorse, making it clear to his players during bowl prep that carries are up for grabs.
"Do you guys think anybody established themselves as a solid starter at the tailback position? I'm not seeing that. Competition is a good thing, so I'm looking forward to it," said Richt to the media leading up to this bowl.
On the defensive side of the ball, Georgia has a true star in the person of Jarvis Jones, the team's leading tackler with 69 stops. He has posted a staggering total of 42 QB hurries and has notched 19.5 TFL, including 13.5 sacks. Bacarri Rambo has intercepted seven passes, certainly worthy of mention, while Sanders Commings has broken up 12 passes. Opponents are putting up 19.6 ppg against the 'Dawgs, who are yielding only 268.5 total ypg, including a mere 103.4 rushing ypg at a clip of 3.3 ypc. With 29 takeaways and 34 sacks, Georgia is no stranger to the big play.